The Last Frontier: Helping Africa feed itself and others

An irrigated farm: Smallholder African farmers will need access to irrigation to improve their productivity

These are interesting times for African agriculture. Apart from the fact that all over Africa, agriculture is coming back on the front burner as a tool for empowerment, as a business and as a development agenda. Truth is, all over the world funding for agriculture is also increasing after having plummeted – and being somewhat ignored – for some decades.

At the heart of this interest is the increase in global population which is expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, and the race to expand food production to meet the expected demand – which cannot be met based on current production and distribution metrics – from this increase.

The current pressures on the world’s food production systems – exacerbated by the increased population, climate change issues, and dwindling natural, non-renewable resources – have placed Africa in good stead or position to benefit from the global drive to raise food production to meet the rising demand which is a corollary of the expanding population.

This need for increased production has necessitated the need to open up more land to agriculture and to improve on existing agricultural practices and farming systems to increase yield and productivity, and also to improve or overhaul existing market structures and food distribution systems/networks to prevent or minimize waste.

And no other continent is in a better position to benefit from all these needed changes than Africa. First, while Africa’s population is just 13 percent of the total population of the world, it owns 27 percent of the total land available and just over 50 percent of the total unused arable land.

Besides, while agricultural productivity have reached their peaks – thanks in part to technology and good management systems – in many continents, the fact that productivity is still many times, and in many areas, far below the global averages in Africa, although often viewed as a disadvantage in itself, presents an opportunity in the race to raise global production. It means Africa presents the world a sustainable means to increase production substantially without even opening up new lands.

Another interesting point to note is that, over 70 percent of Africans are already involved either directly or otherwise in agriculture, and considering the significant population of the continent, its demographics in terms of the large percentage of young people and lower wages in comparison to other areas, Africa provides a combination of factors that makes its agricultural and agribusiness sector more appealing now than it has ever been.

Although, the well known and widely rehashed problems of weak market structures, poor access to finance, ineffective policies, inadequate infrastructures, water/irrigation, erratic power and so on still remain. These problems, notwithstanding, the recent recognition and push being given to agriculture – by African governments – as a sector of all-inclusive growth, and the strings of modest successes being witnessed in solving some of these issues across the continent provide some reason to hope.

And this is the crux of this piece, that is, while Africa presents the best opportunity to feed the growing global population without further degrading or with the least degradation of the environment and without having to result to more controversial technologies (GMOs for example), the continent will need all the help it can get – in terms of information, technology transfer and (marketing/distribution) structures – from more advanced continents and countries to overcome some of the problems militating against this objective.

In this regard, helping Africa will not be out of any altruistic reason or neo-colonial motive, but solely out of the recognition that Africa presents the most cost-effective, ecologically sustainable and environmentally friendly way of feeding the impending global population. Besides, an additional benefit is that, the lifting of hundreds of millions of Africans out of poverty to a more comfortable lifestyle through agriculture will inevitably provide a booming market to the manufactured goods from more developed regions of the world.

This could present a win-win situation whereby Africa, given its untapped abundant natural and human resources, help to feed the expected billions without further degrading the earth’s ecosystems; while at the same time help in fostering a sustainable and long-term global economic recovery/growth through increased demand for heavy equipment, manufactured products and consumer goods, which will benefits the industrial/more developed nations.

Photo: UN

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